It’s hard to imagine a bigger fraternity booster than Paul Wright.
The 54-year-old Charlottesville real estate investor pledged a fraternity within weeks of arriving at the University of Virginia in 1978, and he has been a devoted Chi Psi man ever since. He serves on the group’s national board and was head of U-Va.’s fraternity alumni association. He’s even working to open a new fraternity chapter on campus next spring.
Now, as allegations of a brutal gang rape in a fraternity house bedroom have roiled Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village,” Wright is no longer sure the university’s Greek life can — or should — survive without radical reforms.
“I think the fraternity system probably has one chance to fix itself,” Wright said. “If we don’t get this right, people are going to ask for fraternities to be banned, and they are going to have a point.”
Days after Rolling Stone magazine published a detailed account of seven men allegedly raping a freshman woman during a 2012 party at the Phi Kappa Psi house, U-Va.’s Greek system is under unprecedented scrutiny. Critics say the allegations are only the latest to show that the columned facades on Fraternity Row foster a culture where misogyny is encouraged, binge drinking becomes the norm and fraternity members participate in risky hazing rituals.
A school that reveres tradition is taking a hard look at some of its oldest social institutions, the houses along Rugby Road recalled fondly by generations of Wahoos as their beery gateways to adulthood and acceptance.
In a campuswide stand-down affecting nearly a third of U-Va.’s student body, administrators suspended all fraternity and sorority activities for the closing weeks of the term as they scramble to respond. The pause in partying, U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said in a message to the campus, will give students, faculty, alumni and other concerned parties time “to discuss our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence on Grounds.”
The school’s Board of Visitors, meeting in emergency session Tuesday, heard proposals to restrict Greek organizations that would have been previously unthinkable, from cracking down on underage drinking in the houses to an outright ban on alcohol at fraternity parties. The calls for drastic change have even sounded from within the Greek system.
“Our university is in the wilderness right now,” Tommy Reid, president of the school’s Inter-Fraternity Council, said at the Board of Visitors meeting. “I don’t think any of us really know where to go next.”
Not even alumni have stepped forward to shield their chapters from changes aimed at breaking what some say is an entrenched “Animal House” ethos. Although touting the benefits the Greek system brings to campus — chapters reported raising $400,000 for charity and logging 56,000 hours of community service during the past academic year — few are dismissing the seriousness of the allegations.
“There has been no credible person stepping out and saying, ‘You can’t mess with the fraternities,’ ” Wright said. “This really feels different.”
Some Greeks headed to class before the Thanksgiving break without distinctive jackets that would identify them as fraternity members for fear of being harassed. It’s a remarkable shift for a Greek system that has been as central at times to U-Va. life as Jefferson’s iconic Rotunda building. The first fraternity opened in Charlottesville in 1852, and it was once unheard of for a non-fraternity member, or “independent,” to edit the Cavalier Daily or lead the student council, according to Alexander Gilliam, an emeritus professor who was an undergraduate in the early 1950s.
Fraternities provided housing on campus and a place for young men to make the jump to independence under the eye of upperclassmen and even a house mother. Wright remembers the steady presences of the paid staffer who kept order at his Chi Psi house for more than 50 years.
“I don’t think we need to go back to the age of house mothers, but clearly having an adult in the house could keep things from getting out of control,” he said.
Wright came to U-Va. with the first class to be evenly split between men and women. Fraternities thrived on an all-male “Gentleman’s University” until 1970, when the school became one of the last public universities to admit women as undergraduates. U-Va. went coed nearly a century later than such peers as the University of California at Berkeley (1870), the University of Michigan (1871) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1897).
Today, about a third of the university’s more than 15,000 undergraduates belong to Greek organizations.
Reid Morin, 22, a junior who is the secretary of the U-Va. Chi Phi chapter, said that fraternities have been unfairly singled out and that fraternity friends of his have been yelled at and called “rapists” while walking near campus.
“Calling for the end of Greek life doesn’t make sense,” Morin said. “It wouldn’t get rid of the evil people committing these heinous crimes.”
Like many of the women who have come forward, Emily Renda said her sexual assault came after attending a fraternity party. Renda got drunk on cheap beer and lost track of her friends. Alone and tired, she said that she did not resist the freshman who pushed her out the door offering to walk her home. She joined him in his dorm, where she says he grabbed her by the hair, strangled her and raped her.
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